Hi-def animates toon makers

Switch entails risk as well as opportunity

While the enthusiasm of filmmakers helped push the original DVD format to unprecedented heights, it remains to be seen how strong a creative embrace Blu-ray and HD DVD will ultimately receive.

Many helmers have yet to educate themselves about the new formats; with Java-based next-gen extras still being developed, many haven’t had an opportunity to form an opinion.

Still, particularly in the realm of feature animation, there are those who already see the upside provided by an upgrade in picture quality from 480i to 1080p.

Take George Miller, who made his name on the “Mad Max” franchise and most recently helmed “Happy Feet,” one of the Oscar nominees for animated feature.

“When you go to (standard-def) DVD,” says Miller, “where theoretically it will be watched by more people than would be watching it in a cinema, not only is the image smaller, you don’t get all the detail we’ve been so used to seeing during the production of the movie.”

Jill Culton, director of “Open Season” for Sony, has likewise been frustrated about seeing so much detail lost in the transfer to standard-def disc.

“We have two-hour meetings on the texture of a shirt,” she says. “So for us, it’s really great, because all this great artistic work we’ve done gets to be shown off in the best light.”

Since traditional photochemical processing and duplication always involved some generational loss, hi-def gives home viewers the chance to see a level of detail beyond even what traditional release prints can offer.

“It enables you to eliminate the middleman, so to speak — the middleman being the lab or the vagaries of undependable or chemical processes,” says Tony Bill, director of World War I fighter pic “Flyboys.” “It’s direct to your screen in that respect.”

Bill shot “Flyboys” with the Genesis digital camera, opening the way for an all-digital pipeline. “Just transferring to film changes the quality of the image,” he explains.

But the switch from standard-def to hi-def brings its own pressures, too, Culton notes.

“In computer animation, there are all sorts of things that can happen, like a blade of grass going through someone’s arm or foot that you may not catch,” she explains. “But when you watch something like that in high-definition, you can see it really clearly. That sounds like a silly thing, but since everything is so crisp and vivid and noticeable, your mistakes are more noticeable as well.”

To work around this more stringent scrutiny, Culton and the Sony team had to study and quality-check every nuance of every frame, blown up large on a full-resolution monitor, checking for subtle problems.

“(Hi-def) shows the work off in the best light, but at the same time you have to be incredibly careful, and it takes a little more time than it did to be that precise with every single frame of film,” she says.

“It’s kind of terrifying that someone can look at something in that kind of high definition and pick it apart,” she laughs.

Culton says to her eye, there was no difference between the Blu-Ray images of “Open Season” and the images she saw in dailies.

The clarity of the hi-def picture also shows off some of the filmmaking techniques favored by both Miller and Culton.

“I try to work with wider lenses, which gives you greater depth of field,” Miller says. “I tend to move the camera, which gives the audience a sense that they are in a space.”

He used these techniques to create a sense of space in “Happy Feet.”

In standard-def video, the entire image is a bit fuzzier, so some of that sense of space is lost. Hi-def DVD restores that for the home viewer. “The depth of field feels more alive, more purposeful,” Culton notes.

If Miller, Culton and Bill are any indication, filmmakers — and the formats’ developers, too — are still getting familiar with the new opportunities for extras presented by the new discs.

But Miller and the “Happy Feet” team are excited about a different kind of “extra” made possible by both Blu-ray and HD DVD.

“Happy Feet” was designed to be a 3-D release, but plans for an Imax 3-D version were dropped due to time concerns.

However, with the pic grossing more than $84 million domestically, there is talk of a theatrical 3-D re-release, as well as a hi-def DVD with a 3-D option.

“People will put on the anaglyph glasses or the polarized glasses and watch it at home in 3-D,” Miller explains.

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